Innovation, I'm sorry to say, was not a hallmark of the technology world in 2014. There were plenty of updated gadgets and gimcracks — from thinner tablets to networked, singing light bulbs — but few standout products. Nevertheless, over the course of testing hundreds of high-tech items, from cars to TVs, I found a few devices with the kind of utility and ingenuity that make them worthy of a best of the year designation.
People who suffer from conditions such as Parkinson's disease – a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that can produce hand tremors — can find even the simplest tasks like eating frustrating and embarrassing. Liftware's Stabilizer makes clever use of existing technologies to provide some relief to those who just want to get through a meal without fuss. The stabilizing handle has motion sensors and an on-board computer that detects unwanted tremors. Two internal motors then move the attached utensil in the opposite direction to counteract the unwanted movement. The Liftware can eliminate up to 70 percent of such mild to moderate tremors (between 4 and 12 Hz). A starter package that includes a soup spoon is $295; fork and regular spoon attachments are $20 each.
JBL 3 Series LSR305
Advances in speaker design tend to be incremental achievements. This pair of bookshelf-sized speakers is a standout, however, not only for their exceptional audio quality but also for their reasonable price. A pair costs just under $400.
The 3 Series speakers have an unusual tweeter design that's part of what JBL calls its image control waveguide. Its high frequency driver looks like a cross between a domed and horn tweeter, and delivers a wider soundstage on which individual instruments stand out more clearly than they would on conventional speakers. As I’ve noted before, the effect can be stunning, spreading the vocals and harmonies out in a horizontal plane right in front of you. By sitting in front of a pair of these speakers, you'll feel like you're at the mixing board during a live recording session.
Samsung Level Over
Literally hundreds of different types of headphones were introduced last year. The Samsung Level Over managed to distinguish itself by offering a unique combination of comfort, convenience, and quality. These $350 traditional over-the-ear headphones are substantial, but rest easily on one's head, and can be used with a cable or wirelessly via Bluetooth. They exhibit a warm, rich sound that I found ideal for midnight movie watching or music listening. A noise-canceling feature also makes them solid air travel companions. And they've got some nifty tricks, such as touch sensitive controls that let you swipe the backside of the earpiece to raise or lower the volume or skip tracks.
Mass Fidelity Relay
An unassuming silver box, the $249 Relay is a digital-to-analog converter for playing digital music sources. It does an excellent job keeping the music clean, but what's really special about it is that it can receive streams from portable devices wirelessly over Bluetooth and play them through a connected stereo system. It supports the aptX streaming format for improved sound and frees you from the tyranny of tiny Bluetooth speakers. Since first writing about it, I've bumped into several music fans who are rarely so enthusiastic about such a straightforward, easy-to-use device.
There are more than a few solid smartphones now on the market from Apple, Motorola, HTC, and Samsung, but the LG L3 stands out as the best of the year for its functionality and collection of features. It has an iPhone 6 Plus-sized 5.5-inch screen but offers an even sharper picture. Its camera is more responsive thanks to a laser focusing system that gives the user a better chance to catch spontaneous moments. It's also able to capture video in 4K, which is an ultra-crisp resolution for the latest Ultra HD TVs. To manage the phone with one hand, LG has a single power button/volume rocker on the back. In all, it’s an ingenious smartphone.
(The L3 is $200 with a two-year contract from AT&T; $99 with a two-year contract from Verizon; $21 a month for two years from T-Mobile; $20 a month for two years from Sprint.)
Amazon Fire HD
Tablet computers have become indispensable couch-side companions for a quick read, catching up on the news, or looking up that essential bite of trivia. But paying $400 for such convenience is excessive. An inexpensive model can do just as well. Last year's best low-priced tablet was the $99 Amazon Fire HD 6. It's cheap enough that a family can afford more than one (to end sibling squabbling), and the Fire HD covers many popular applications, including e-books from the online retailer, movies from Netflix, music from Pandora, and Skype for video chats. Concerned parents can also use Amazon's FreeTime service to protect kids from tablet overexposure.
H4 Hisense Roku TV
Last year, manufacturers were pushing (and pushing and pushing) 4K TVs with sharper pictures and advanced features. But most of us couldn't afford such sets and what we really wanted was an easy way to find and watch the shows we're interested in. The Roku TV is that TV for the rest of us. The first model I tested with Roku's streaming and search features built in was the H4 Hisense Roku TV. No extra streaming media player is required, everything's here in one simple interface. You can search for videos and movies across all of its hundreds of streaming channels, including Netflix, Amazon, and HBO Go. So you won't waste money renting a show when it's available on another service for less. Better yet, the price of the 40-inch set is just $350.
John R. Quain is a personal tech columnist for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @jqontech or find more tech coverage at J-Q.com.